Matthew Weiner understands the emphasis that's been placed on the final episodes of "Mad Men," but at the same time he thinks that way of looking at them might detract from the experience. Or, to put it more bluntly: "I think there's too much weight put on the ending of a TV show. 'Dear America: Shut the f— up and watch,'" Weiner offers with a laugh. "That's my headline." Well, he is the boss — for today at least.
THE ART OF THE ENDING
From a show-running perspective, when you knew how much story was left, did you already know how it was going to end?
No. Well, I knew where I wanted it to go when I sold the show, believe it or not, but I didn't know how it would happen. And how it happens is everything on that show. But I have to say, the security of knowing that you have three more seasons to go without anymore fear of cancelation is an incredibly gratifying vote of confidence. On the other, it was completely terrifying because I didn't really want to change what I was doing. So we still treated every season like it was the last season of the show. There's nothing that we were saving. There was a finale concept, which I didn't share with the writers until probably the beginning of the last season. My wife knew about it and Jon Hamm knew about it, but that’s it.
It wasn't part of the original pitch to AMC?
No, no, no. No. And I don't know if they would've remembered it. It wasn't the same people I pitched it to. But no, it wasn't part of it.
You knew a few years ago exactly how long you had until the end of the show.
Yeah. In between Seasons 4 and 5, it was settled that there would be three more seasons of the show, and then I found out about them splitting the last two seasons about a year later — long before the public did — and that's where I asked for the extra episode, because I was like, "I can't do a six-episode arc. It's too short." I also thought they were going to split it up in the same year. I didn't know that they would actually be 10 months apart.
The splitting up seasons has been a bone of contention for some.
I've had lots of different criticism of them at different points in my career or had a sometimes contentious relationship with Lionsgate and AMC, but the fact remains that I do not question their programming choices. I can't, actually. My job is to bring the show in on budget, and if they want to take these last seven episodes and show them one a year for the next seven years, I can't do anything about it. And quite frankly for AMC, who are the people who made that decision, this strategy is very important to them. Not only was it a huge success for "Breaking Bad," but they've basically been able to stretch these properties out and checkerboard them — with "The Walking Dead" and so forth — at eight-episode clips. And you know, "Downton Abbey" is eight episodes, "True Detective" was eight episodes. These are not ridiculous quotients. It's just there was something luxurious about having a nice 13-hour chunk for "Mad Men," and I did construct this last season that way no matter what, even though it's broken up.
I've been re-watching the show from the beginning in preparation for these finale episodes.
That's great, but just know that we built the show one episode at a time and one season at a time. We tried to paint ourselves into as many corners as we could every year. And I'm not being facetious, the end of Season 5 was the only time that I knew I would need something for the next season. So when you have something like having Peggy go to a different agency, we already knew that the next year we were going to have them merge. That's something I wouldn't have done in the past just because I've just been like, "Figure it out the next year." That's the advantage of having future real estate already invested in.
So what have you learned about crafting the end of a series?
Ending a TV show is not organic to the TV writing process. Your whole job is to propel people into the next week, so this is a totally foreign idea in itself. Even when I tried to be really final in some of those season finales, the audience doesn't see it that way if you're doing your job right. They want more. That's your dream. So thinking about where you leave the characters and how it would effect the people who had watched it from the beginning is one thing. Then you think that it will be out there and people who have never seen the show will know it when they start — how does that taint it? That's what I think is the genius of "The Sopranos" in a way. "The Sopranos" to me, because of the way the story ended, will always exist in some kind of continuum of itself. Now, "Mad Men" is a very different show, so has to find its own ending, and my goal was to find what was the right ending for the story. And I do think about the audience. I do think about what are they going to feel like when it goes off the air. And I'm saying this as someone who has lost their favorite show before. That's the other mistake you can make: Don't assume everybody watching your show that it's their favorite show. But write to the people that you think it is.